Lakers may fall short in the Wild West

Updated: July 16, 2004, 2:25 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider
Kobe has his coach. Kobe has his $136 million contract. Kobe no longer has that 7-foot-1, 300-plus pound thorn in his side.

No wonder he looked so happy Thursday evening alongside GM Mitch Kupchak announcing he had decided to return to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Conventional wisdom has said all along returning to the Lakers was Kobe Bryant's only real option. The Lakers had more money, had bent over backward to accommodate him and had given him three rings and more prestige than any other team out there.

Bryant claimed, in the end, that the lure and mystique of the Lakers were too much to give up. The Lakers were in his heart -- especially a version that revolved around his every whim.

But 10 minutes after Bryant officially re-signed, reality crept in. He may not have liked Shaquille O'Neal personally, but Bryant acknowledged the Big Fella was the most dominant player in the game -- an irreplaceable inside force whose absence will turn the Lakers' quest for another championship into an "uphill battle."

On this point, there is no disagreement. Landing Bryant was a huge victory for the Lakers. But the battle has just begun. Forget for a second the Lakers' lack of a replacement for O'Neal. Just look at the rest of the Western Conference, then try to figure out where to place the Lakers.

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer